The Middle East Channel

What Million Missing Israelis?

Demography is like magic. Put the right numbers in the wrong hands, and you get manipulation. Put the wrong numbers in the right hands, and you get miscalculation. But the case of "The Million Missing Israelis" -- an article published in on ForeignPolicy.com at the beginning of July by Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin -- is a hard one to categorize. Indeed, the two writers have the wrong numbers. They also make some statements that might raise suspicions related to motivations -- namely, that their demography is driven by a political agenda rather than science.

Chamie and Mirkin argue that the unpublicized story of emigration from Israel is no less significant than the story of Jewish immigration back to the homeland, and that it has reached a point at which it should be considered a threat to Israel's future as a Jewish state -- both demographically but no less important ideologically. "The departure of Jewish Israelis also contributes to the undermining of the Zionist ideology," the authors write, based on the assumption that a million Israelis have chosen to leave the country since its 1948 birth. Magnanimously, they take the trouble to also include lower estimations of departing Israelis --"the official estimate of 750,000 Israeli emigrants -- 10 percent of the population" -- but even so, that doesn't change the perception that Israel is just like "Mexico, Morocco, and Sri Lanka." Not the most exemplary models of prosperity and success.

One wonders whether the necessary readjustment of numbers -- following the analysis that we are about to present -- will also change some of the far-fetched doomsday conclusions the authors reach at the end of their article. What Chamie and Mirkin present to readers leads them to conclude that the numbers pose "grave political challenges and jeopardizes the basic Jewish character and integrity of Israel." Their numbers, though, are totally off the mark. As for their conclusions, that is for readers to decide.

We should start with this simple statement: There are not a "million missing Israelis." A study conducted under the auspices of our think tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute -- one that has not yet been released but will be published in a couple of weeks -- will put the real number of "missing" Israelis at a much lower number. According to Israel's Bureau of Statistics, since the establishment of the state up until the end of 2008, 674,000 Israelis left the country and did not return after more than a year abroad. An unknown number, estimated to be between 102,000 and 131,000, have died since, putting the number of living Israelis abroad at the end of 2008 at 543,000 to 572,000 (if one counts the dead abroad, one should also count the dead in Israel -- this will not change the number of leaving Israelis but will definitely change the percentage of them).

An updated model developed by the Bureau of Statistics at the end of 2008 put the number of not-returning Israelis abroad at 518,000, but added to it a category of 290,000 "non-resident" Israelis. This last number is a tricky one, as it includes the children of Israelis born abroad if they were registered with the Israeli authorities. Such children have never lived in Israel and can hardly be considered "missing," but if one adds them to the mix one gets to 808,000 Israelis, of which more than 100,000 have already died. Bottom line: Some 670,000 to 700,000 official "Israelis" (including children) live outside Israel today.

But here's where the narrative gets more complicated. Much more complicated -- and fascinating -- if one cares to understand the real story of missing Israelis. Israel is a country of many immigrants, as Chamie and Mirkin did bother to note when they wrote about "another important factor contributing to the outflow of Jewish Israelis," that is, "previous emigration experience." But they didn't quite explain the meaning of what they'd written: Israel is a melting pot for some -- not unlike the United States -- but also a stop-on-the-way-to-someplace-else for others. In many cases, it is a gateway for people escaping repressive regimes or poverty.

Take, for example, the huge wave of immigrants who flew in droves to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Israeli Interior Ministry records, 1.1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union entered Israel between January 1989 and December 2002. However, 8.8 percent of those newcomers -- some 100,000 olim (the Hebrew term used to describe those choosing to "climb up" to Israel) -- had decided not to remain in Israel and quite quickly moved on to their countries of choice. Should such newcomers be counted as "leaving Israelis"? Should their departure be considered a blow to Zionist dreams? Or maybe these immigrants were merely people leaving the Soviet Union, making the first available escape, without ever seriously considering Israel as their long-term place of residence?

The answer of course is that some were and some weren't. Some wanted to live in Israel but then regretted it; some were headed for America and would only pass through Israel, as it was an accessible route. Hebrew University professor Sergio DellaPergola argues that Israel's ability to retain more than 90 percent of Soviet immigrants is in fact quite impressive, when one compares it, for example, with foreign-born "ethnic" Germans immigrating to the mother country between 1954 and 1999 but leaving it at a staggering 60 percent rate.

Want some more complications? The threat of "leaving Israelis" that are presumably jeopardizing "the basic Jewish character and integrity of Israel" -- as Chamie and Mirkin suggested -- can only possibly refer to leaving Jewish Israelis. When Israeli Arabs leave the country, they don't undermine the Zionist dream and in fact contribute some to the preserving of Israel's "Jewish character." That is quite obvious, isn't it? But Chamie and Mirkin include the leaving Arab Israelis in all of their calculations (DellaPergola's estimate of 850,000 emigrants also includes Arab Israelis, children and the dead), leading their readers to assume that all those leaving are in fact Jewish. But according to Israel's Bureau of Statistics, some 100,000 leaving Israelis were Arab Israelis.

All told, of the 674,000 Israeli emigrants from 1948 to 2008 (children born abroad not included), about 100,000 were Arabs and about 300,000 were not born in Israel. That's important, because all serious measures of emigration must (and do) take into account whether one is native-born or foreign-born, as foreign-born tend to leave more easily and are less attached to the country in which they reside. It turns out that the number of native-born Jewish Israelis leaving is pretty low -- less than 300,000. This is not analogous to the numbers from "Mexico, Morocco, and Sri Lanka," but it is rather similar to those of Australia, Canada, Finland, or Germany. Native-born Greeks, Irish, Swiss, and New Zealanders all leave their respective countries in higher percentages than do Israeli-born Israelis.

Israel does suffer from brain-drain patterns similar to those felt in most countries, and the percentage of Israeli academics working abroad is among the highest in the world. That's partially because of economic conditions in Israel's colleges and universities and partially because Israeli academics are actually encouraged and expected to study abroad. But Israel has also evinced a remarkable ability to draw back young and bright Israeli scholars when it puts its mind to it. One study has shown that returning Israelis aren't just better educated than average Israelis, but are also better educated than those choosing to stay in their new countries of choice. In many cases, the best and the brightest are those coming back.

We don't deny that Israel has problems. Keeping Israelis in Israel and bringing back Israelis who live abroad has always been a concern for the Israeli government, and is still very much on the minds of policymakers. But that is not because Israel suffers from emigration notably more than other countries. Israelis worry so much about their emigrants because of the high value they put on every fellow citizen, because of the close-knit (and at times suffocating) nature of Israeli society. Yes, it's also because they see every person's escape as a blow to Zionism. But the fact of the matter is this: The overall percentage of leaving native-born Israelis is comparable to that of many other OECD countries. And that is no small achievement for a country living under constant security threat and having to survive in a hostile and volatile neighborhood.

Yogev Karasenty and Shmuel Rosner are fellows at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), based in Jerusalem.

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The Middle East Channel

Gaza’s economic mirage

GAZA CITY — A predominant, if misguided, narrative holds Gaza to be a Mediterranean secret, where food is plentiful and joy is unabated. Such statements are not exactly false. As a Gazan, I can say I have laughed, dined out (not just falafel), and been able to embrace my proclivity for consumption -- recently purchasing a 37" flat-screen TV. But this has been a product of the stubbornness and creativity of capitalism under an enforced closure (where goods flow into Gaza, but what goes out is very limited). Not to mention the sheer luck that I hail from an elite class and of the simple fact that humans, in desperate circumstances, still muster the ability to "look on the bright side of life."

Two recent developments in Gaza have propped up the "there are no problems in Gaza narrative," and will undoubtedly feature in a soon-to-be-shot promotional video by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  One is the pool-hall-cum-lounge called Carrino's; the other, Munib Al-Masri's six-star Movenpick hotel.

Carrino's is straight out of Dubai. Huge LCDs line the wall, letting customers catch up on the latest episode of House MD, lemon juice costs a whopping $4, and, of course, there's a dress code. The reality is that the clientele at Carrino's is the who's who of Gaza's NGO elite.

Even more up-market than Carrino's is the Movenpick, an old investment of Munib Al-Masri, PADICO's chairman and the West Bank's richest businessman. The hotel's occupancy rate is barely in the double digits. Fortunately, its owner is a billionaire, and it's his personal fortune that keeps the lights on. For some, the Movenpick is an oasis, but for most it's a mirage; a reminder of what the majority of Gazans will never have.

I can agree with some in the Israeli establishment who say that there is an asset bubble, or something like this, in Gaza. But it will always be Israel, armed with its $8 billion laser-sighted needle that can both pop the bubble and more significantly inflate it. In the last few months, international media have reported on Gaza's relative peace and calm. Gazans are counting themselves lucky that Israel has all but stopped its military incursions. No air strikes, no drones, no early morning beach shelling or the rare sonic boom.

In the last two weeks, however, Israel predictably responded to rockets fired from Gaza. It takes literally seconds for Gazans to be reminded who is really in control -- whether it's at the Rafah border, where Gazans' fate is decided by incompetent Egyptian border officers, or perhaps on the coast where fishermen are told by the Israeli navy where and when they can catch their living. The agency of most Gazans is reduced to which football team they choose to support. For the luckier ones, an evening at Carrino's or Movenpick offers some respite.

Yet the majority of Gazans are dependent on Israeli products: many supermarkets in Gaza are stocked with Oreos, Magnum Ice Creams, and kosher milk and butter. As such, the possibility of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is hindered by Israel's monopoly of the market and compounded by the dearth of competition from Palestinian producers. In fact, when Gazans (some, though not all) are not being tempted by delicious snacks, they are shopping in the mall. It is almost counterintuitive to think that the alleged creation of an army of modern consumers in Gaza runs opposite to Israeli interests. What better a population to do business with than a population paying homage to malls and not Mecca?

Instead, Israel chooses to instrumentalize this modicum of normality -- albeit for a minority -- in order to conceal its occupation of the territory. International media outlets often tow this line. Popular media narratives often depict positive and incremental changes in Gaza, though always glossing over the fact that Israel has been an occupying power for over six decades. The removal of this historical context leaves readers wondering what all the fuss is about. Why send boats to Gaza? They have pizza, don't they? Why do those "barbarians" insist on firing rockets? They have a pretty beach and a calming sunset.  The common meme has become that Gazans must learn to be more grateful.

A prominent Western journalist recently visited Gaza. During his meeting with young bloggers, which I attended, he took the opportunity to tell us that Gaza is not in as bad shape as Haiti. He is right; Gaza is not a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Haiti, nor is it famine-stricken like Somalia. But the issue, as one of the sharp young bloggers pointed out, is that Haiti was shaken by an earthquake; the tragedy of Gaza is man-made.

This man-made tragedy has put Gaza on a devastating trajectory. Natural water supplies are predicted to evaporate; only five percent of the wells in Gaza produce water that meets World Health Organization drinking water standards. Fifty-six thousand cubic liters of sewage pour into the sea each day. Gaza's export industry is practically non-existent.

Most of Gaza's factories were destroyed by Israel during its 2009 invasion, and Israel refuses to allow a normal flow of export goods. One exception, however, is a company that exports catchy ring-tones to the Gulf.

Education has also suffered. According to UNESCO, seven universities were damaged during the 2009 invasion, and six buildings were destroyed (and Israel has permitted few reconstruction materials to enter Gaza since). The same report highlights the lack of optimism amongst university students as 71 percent are not hopeful about their future and are very concerned by the prospect of another war. All of these issues will persist and worsen, as long as Israel allows them to do so. What will remain relatively untouched are the tiny pockets of wealth that will always exist in Gaza.

Israel has been able to strategically extricate itself from the Gaza Strip. It has the international community all but convinced that the territory's problems are Gazans' own fault. Hamas's arrival was almost too good to be true. What better a fall guy than incompetent religious fundamentalists? In the midst of the Arab-Spring, Egypt (which under Mubarak had been complicit -- and at times encouraging -- of Gaza's closure) must now answer to the Palestinians, a revitalized Egyptian population, and global activists.

Meanwhile, Israel stands back as a community teeters on the brink of humanitarian disaster. Israel's unwillingness to significantly, and sustainably, improve the situation in the Gaza Strip has created a dead zone both economically and intellectually. It does not take an expert to predict that a more virulent form of fundamentalist ideology will continue to ferment.

Israel has failed to engage with the very Palestinians who spend afternoons in the shopping mall and evenings at Movenpick. All of this begs the question: what sort of Palestinians does Israel intend to make peace with?

Wasseem El Sarraj is a researcher with the Gaza-based think tank TiDA.

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